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Fishery research a crucial investment

Posted: June 3, 2013 - 10:12am

Gov. Sean Parnell visited the Kenai Peninsula this past week, and, as is almost inevitable in this neck of the woods, the discussion turned toward salmon fishery management.

At issue on the Peninsula are weak returns of chinook salmon, including our world-famous Kenai River kings. Concerns extend well beyond the in-river sport fisheries, because conservation measures taken to maximize king salmon escapement include restrictions on most of the rest of Cook Inlet’s sport, personal-use and commercial salmon fisheries.

Last year’s weak king return kept Cook Inlet setnets out of the water, despite a healthy return of sockeye salmon. This year, chinook sport fisheries have opened with numerous restrictions, and other user groups are bracing for additional impacts to their fisheries.

Declining chinook salmon returns are not unique to the Peninsula, though, and the governor included $10 million in this year’s budget toward a $30 million, 5-year Chinook Salmon Research Initiative.

While $10 million is a lot of money, when you consider the scope of the issue, and the potential economic impacts of closing fisheries, not only is research funding a prudent investment, the proposed budget is arguably not enough.

Right now, everyone’s got a theory about what’s happening to the chinook salmon — and theories encompass everything from excessive trawler by-catch to in-river overexploitation to Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Fishery management has always been part science, part art, with managers making decisions based on available data, past experience and, to an extent, educated guesses. All that is done within the confines of management plans that, more and more, are driven as much by user group politics as they are by fishery biology.

Scientists met last fall for a salmon symposium to identify gaps in the fishery science. Filling in the gaps is crucial to making the best-informed decisions possible about future fishery management, not just for Cook Inlet, but for the entire state.

Conducting research costs money, though. And if we as Alaskans want to continue to tout our fisheries as some of the most sustainable and well-managed in the world, we need to be willing to pay for it.

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